Attractive design. Removable color bases. Well-rounded sound. Multi-room audio.
Still fewer skills than Amazon's Alexa. Doesn't work as a standard Bluetooth speaker.
- Bottom Line
The Google Home is a great-looking speaker with a voice assistant that's catching up to Amazon's Alexa, although it hasn't quite gotten there yet.
By Sascha Segan
Editors' Note: This review has been updated to reflect the addition of multiple-user support, new third-party skills, and integration with a number of major smart home brands. We have raised its score from 3 to 3.5 stars.
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The Google Home ($129) connected wireless speaker has grown up a lot in the six months since it appeared on the scene. With support for multiple users, many more smart home brands, and third-party skills, it's finally a legitimate competitor to the Amazon Echo ecosystem. In some ways, Google Home is even better than Alexa—at handling multiple users, for instance. It hasn't quite caught up yet overall, but it's definitely getting there.
Design and Setup
The Google Home is an attractive gourd-shaped speaker with a removable woven gray base—additional fabric ($20) and metal ($20) options are available. It's 3.79 inches in diameter and 5.62 inches tall, and weighs about a pound. It looks like an ornamental candle, and thanks to the fabric base and various color options, it'll fit much more easily into various home decor than Amazon's somewhat utilitarian-looking black or white Echo speakers (even the smaller Echo Dot and Amazon Tap aren't particularly attractive).
It only has one physical button, which toggles the always-on microphone. Otherwise, the top is a touch surface you can tap to pause music, or stroke to turn volume up or down.
You set up the speaker by loading the Google Home app on your Android or iOS phone. It'll connect the speaker to your home Wi-Fi and let you define your home's location (for weather and traffic). From then on, you can 'cast' music from your phone to the speaker, or you can just say "OK Google" to activate the speaker's voice assistant and get things going.
The speaker can be heard, and it can hear you, from a 50-foot distance. But it's quieter than the Amazon Echo. Turned to maximum, I got 3-4dB more volume at a one foot distance from the Echo compared with Google Home—although I'd argue the Home has richer, more well-rounded sound, especially in the sub-bass realm. It won't blow you away with low end, but it's pleasant, room-filling, and never harsh.
Compared with other Bluetooth speakers, its performance aligns perfectly with competitors in its price range. Playing our standard bass-heavy test track, The Knife's "Silent Shout," it produces a well-balanced sound that is definitely fuller than a smaller Bluetooth speaker like the JBL Clip 2, but doesn't come anywhere near the dance party boom of a big cylinder like the UE Megaboom.
The Home has weaker Wi-Fi connectivity than the Amazon Echo, however. In testing, I could successfully use the Echo in areas where the Google Home dropped its Wi-Fi connection.
Another thing to note: The Google Home doesn't work as a standard Bluetooth speaker. You need to send music to it from a Google Cast-compatible application, like Google Play Music or YouTube. Like with the Amazon speakers, you're really supposed to use the voice-activated service to summon music from the cloud, but you can pair a phone with an Echo speaker to stream like any Bluetooth speaker would.
OK Google, Play Me a Song
The Home plays music from Google Play, iHeartRadio, Pandora, Spotify, TuneIn, and YouTube. It includes a six-month trial of Google Play Music Unlimited and YouTube Red to suck you in. (Google Play Music Unlimited and YouTube Red are $9.99 per month together.)
I used the Google Home with Google Play and YouTube. On YouTube, you can't ask for a specific artist, only for radio mixes based on the artist. On Google Play, you can play or shuffle by artist or album, but you still can't do anything with your own purchased library. The Home doesn't even recognize that you have a library, if you haven't arranged that library into playlists. Alexa has all the same services, as well as some third-party skills for podcasts. Alexa stays in the lead for flexibility by being able to play anything stored locally on your device via Bluetooth, an ability Google Home lacks.
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Multiple Google Home speakers can play multi-room audio together, though, which Amazon speakers can't do yet. Amazon says this feature is coming.
Google's ability to control TVs via Chromecast is a little more natural than Amazon's Fire TV Stick. You have to press a button on the Fire TV remote to access Alexa. With Google Home, you can simply holler out "OK Google, play this show on that TV" and it will, if the show is on a service supported by Chromecast (and the TV is already powered on).
Google Assistant vs. Alexa
The Home recently leapfrogged Alexa with its support for multiple Google accounts. It can handle up to six different accounts, giving different calendar information and playlists for each, as long as each person has a smartphone with the Google Home app to link the account with. The amazing—but flawed—part is that it can tell the users apart just by voice. I tried it with our analyst Ajay Kumar, and the Home had no problem telling who each of us was. The flaw is that if you have a condition that changes your voice—a cold, for instance—the Home may not recognize you and you won't be able to get personalized services. Alexa supports multiple Amazon accounts, but you have to say, "Alexa, switch account" each time.
Google Assistant is very good at answering Internet queries. It can tell you where the nearest store that sells beer is, and what its hours are. It'll give you the phone number of the Whole Foods on Houston Street. It'll translate a phrase into Spanish, tell you how many teaspoons are in a tablespoon, read you a somewhat random recipe for cornbread, and tell you how much it costs to fly to Seoul. More apropos for your home, Google Assistant can set timers, read you news from NPR and more than a dozen other news services, and tell you what's in your Google Calendar for the day (as long as you have a regular Gmail account, not a G Suite account.)
Google has also been beefing up third-party support. There are now more than 200 third-party actions, including ordering a pizza from Domino's and a car from Uber. That's well short of Amazon's 11,000-plus skills, but it's a start.
The Home has especially improved when it comes to controlling smart home devices. At launch, it only integrated with Nest, Philips, and Samsung home devices (although it could connect to IFTTT systems as well). As of this writing, it has added August, Belkin Wemo, Frigidaire, Honeywell, Insignia, Lifx, Logitech Harmony, Rachio, TP-Link, and Wink to its support list. Alexa still has even greater smart home support including Blink, Carrier, DigitalStrom, Haiku, Leviton, Lowe's Iris, Lutron, Netatmo, and many other kinds of devices. But Google has made impressive progress in a short period of time.
I'm still a little disappointed that the Home doesn't connect to some other Google services. It can't add events to your Google Calendar, which is something Alexa can do. It also can't read emails or Google Docs, and can't connect to Google Trips for travel updates. Alexa has a third-party skill called Email Assistant that can extract travel details from your Gmail mailbox, which is similar to Google Trips functionality. All of those things are coming eventually, but they aren't here now. Once more, Alexa's superior third-party ecosystem comes through.
Also, if you have an Android phone with Google Assistant around, saying "OK Google" may cause your phone and Google Home to fight for voice dominance. Changing the Home's trigger phrase to "Hey Google" fixes that issue.
Comparisons and Conclusions
Alexa is still the queen of voice assistants. Google Home is learning fast, and it does some things better than Alexa does. If you have a Google Play Music account and multiple Google accounts around your household, Google Home will give you a smoother multi-user experience.
But for most people looking for voice assistants, as long as you're willing to do some work finding and configuring third-party skills, Amazon's setup still delivers more. There are three different Echo models ranging in price from $50 to $180, they work with more smart home brands and online services, and they even work better with Google accounts than Google's own product does, at the moment. The competition is a lot closer than it used to be, and Google could very well overtake Amazon in the future. It's just not quite there yet.
PCMag.com's lead mobile analyst, Sascha Segan, has reviewed hundreds of smartphones, tablets and other gadgets in more than 9 years with PCMag. He's the head of our Fastest Mobile Networks project, one of the hosts of the daily PCMag Live Web show and speaks frequently in mass media on cell-phone-related issues. His commentary has appeared on ABC, the BBC, the CBC, CNBC, CNN, Fox News, and in newspapers from San Antonio, Texas to Edmonton, Alberta. Segan is also a multiple award-winning travel writer, having contributed… More »
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